Mindful and Embodied Exercise for Soothing Anxiety

May 02, 2024

Mindful and Embodied Exercise for Soothing Anxiety

The modern world has us stuck up in our heads, with the result of losing the body awareness that we need to register a sense of presence and safety. Learning how to release self-protective holding patterns in the body can help unravel both the physical and mental tension that can create anxiety.

Many therapies that address the mind and mental health are now recognising the need to bring embodied awareness or embodiment into practices; recognising that we can only fully come to relaxation states when we have a sense of where our body is in the here and now. A recent study into CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) – the most widely accepted treatment for anxiety, panic attacks, depression, eating disorders and other mental health issues – put forward that “integrated embodiment approach with CBT enhances outcomes across a wide range of emotional disorders”, recognising the limitations of a process that only addresses thought patterns (Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(3):29).

Many modern exercise efforts are quite prescriptive and limited in their range; yet we are born to move in many ways and movement is highly bound up in our gestures and expressions to the world around us. As the meta-analysis above states “body expressions play a pivotal role in the emotive experiences of people” – conversely, we lay down our emotional stories profoundly within our bodies and they can come out as anxiety when not able to be safely released. Where trauma used to be addressed in the realms of the psychological, now we know it is a full mind-body cascade of reliving something from the past as if it were (consciously or unconsciously) here now. As Bessel van der Kolk says in his book The Body Keeps the Score; “We remember trauma less with words and more with our feelings and bodies”.

Our relationship with our inner world

Interoception is how we sense bodily and inwardly – the route to embodiment and awareness of how we truly are in the moment, not how we think we are. A study looking at how interoceptive awareness and self-referential thought represent two distinct, yet habitually integrated aspects of self, reported that “high levels of brooding rumination coupled with low levels of interoceptive awareness were associated with the highest levels of depression and anxiety-related distress” – i.e. when lost in the anxiety of worrying thoughts and cut off from our inner body experience, we can tend to suffer more mental distress (Behav Res Ther. 2016;85:43–52). This tallies with the mindfulness guiding statement that “your thoughts are not you.”

A focus on the breath is often used as an anchor in mindfulness and embodied practices because breathing is very real, holds us in the present moment and is a neutral experience for most.

A helpful mindful focus can also be the movement of the diaphragm and belly within the rhythm of the breath. This is more relaxed and easier when we are not held in stress responses such as anxiety. Stressed breathing is higher and tighter up into the chest and shoulders, which can get locked in place, held into the upper body by tension and lack of movement in the diaphragm.

The Exercises

These exercises are Somatic in nature; they are designed as playful, physical mindful practices. They are floor-based so that you can be more fluid as you don’t need to hold yourself up from the ground and most easily release any habitual tension that has crept in and become ‘the norm’ from stress, postural issues (from chairs, driving and looking at screens), and trauma.

These movements may not seem like you are doing much, but they move deeply into tissues and create a meditative focus in the body – this can be more helpful for those with anxiety who may feel ‘locked-in’ with still meditation. The language used to describe the motions is mindful in tone. This very deliberately approaches your body, not as if it were a mechanical object (it is not), but rather a living, breathing, emotional, safe and responsive home for you to live.

Fostering embodied awareness in this way also helps coordination and what is often referred to as ‘grace’. If a person cannot access their lower brain and muscle memory – i.e. they are not embodied – they may move more awkwardly, from the higher brain; thinking into movement, rather than an integrated way with the whole body involved.

Lay comfortably with legs bent, feet about hip-width apart and head supported so the chin tucks lightly into the throat. If tight in the lower back, take the feet wider, turn in the toes and drop the knees in towards each other. Find the foot placement where you don’t need any effort to rest there.

Place one hand on your belly, the other on your diaphragm at the lower ribs – where shoulders and wrists can be fully comfortable. Tune into the movement of your breath at your belly; the rise on the inhale, fall on the exhale and any changes in breath that this awareness creates.

Release your lower jaw to allow any tension in the jaw and neck to soften down to the whole diaphragmatic area. Allow that movement into the front, sides and back of the diaphragm, sighing out or expressing any noises that create a sense of release and emptying out with the exhalation.

Stay with this breathing exercise for 5-10 minutes whenever able or to release tension if feeling agitated.


From there, reach out each arm at a time to yawn and stretch, exploring this motion known as a pandiculation – where we contract tissues and then consciously release to reset the nervous system via the sensory motor cortex or ‘brain map’. This is the region that communicates to particular body areas and muscles.

Animals pandiculate all through the day, which prepares them for normal sensing and moving, readying their voluntary cortex for efficient functioning.


Laying out straight, breathe here to settle into your whole body. Then on an exhale let your head roll to one side, inhaling back to centre. Just roll into an easy rage of motion without pushing, so you feel opening space at the base of the skull.

Then change the breath pattern, so you inhale the head to one side, reaching the opposite arm out from the body at about 45 degrees from the hip. Exhale back to centre, releasing fully and move to the other side, so that you alternately reach down from the side of the neck to the fingers, in this motion that has a pandiculating affect.


Bend the legs back up again, with feet as wide as a yoga mat, arms reaching above the shoulders where the hands can fully drop. On an inhalation, let the knees roll to one side, head to the other, rolling over the sides of the feet.

Exhale back to centre and follow this motion side-to-side, guided by the natural pace of your breath and full exhalations. This creates a spine undulation, where inhaling in opens the chest as the lungs fill and the emptying of the exhale decompresses back to the centre line.

At the centre, walk the feet back hip-width apart and take the arms out at shoulder height. As you inhale arch the back to open the chest (tailbone moving towards the ground) and as you exhale, let the belly and chest drop (tailbone rises off the floor).

Then add in the arm movements to follow the motion of the ribs as you breathe. As the waist lifts with the inhale, turn both arms to rotate towards the head, thumbs towards the ground – deep into the shoulders. As the waist moves to the ground with the exhale, turn the arms in the opposite direction, away from the head – palms to the ground and even further round.

Let the head move up and down as feels natural and just move in as deeply as feels appropriate for each breath. This movement is a strong ‘lymphatic pump’ around the diaphragm, so gets fluids moving there to support immunity. Rest fully comfortably for a good few moments after to allow these effects to settle and embed into body tissues.

Bring your knees into your chest and hug around the top of your chest. Coming to this foetal gesture lets your body know that you are safe, so that your breath can soften and soothe accordingly. Less room at the chest also brings awareness of the need to breath into diaphragm and belly. Offer yourself compassion and roll around and massage with the hands in anyway that helps meet that feeling in a very real way.

Lengthen out the left leg and bend up the right, with arms about 45 degrees out from the hips. On an inhalation, move the right knee over the midline into a twist, keeping the inside edge of the foot on the ground. Exhale the knee back to centre, foot fully on the ground.

Follow this rhythm on one side, arching into the lower back until it feels organic to reach the right arm along the ground from the shoulder as you inhale into the twist. Exhale back to fully relax and over the reaching movements that follow, turn the head to look at the right hand. You can hold and stay in this position whenever it feels helpful to breathe and explore the feelings there.

Move to the other side, taking time to start with the twist, so you only add in the reach when you have freed up the movement to do so. Notice tendencies of the mind to want to rush to the end point and take your time.

Come back to the first side with right foot on the ground and interlink your hands behind your head, elbows out to the side. Begin with the same twisting movement (inhaling in, exhaling back) now with more openness through the side ribs, chest and armpits.

Then as it feels organic, as you twist, slide the arms and ribcage to the right – without lifting the left arm, so you come into a side stretch, opening the whole of the left side of the body. As you exhale the knee back to centre, slide the arms and head back to the middle.

As before, hold this position whenever it feels good to feel the rhythm of the breath and also notice the pandiculating effect of reaching through the side body in this way; let yourself fully yawn and sigh out as feels good. Come to the other side in an unhurried way.

Back feet on the ground, inhale one knee out to the side, rolling fully onto the outer leg (so the other buttock is lifted) whilst the other stays rooted to the ground. Exhale back to centre and inhale the other leg out, so the pelvis turns fully as you move side-to-side. Let the head turn away from the leg coming out to the side and lift up through the heart as you inhale and the lungs fill.

Then let the leg coming out to the side fully lengthen and begin to move it up and down along the floor, ‘dragging’ rather than lifting so you feel the resistance up into the hip. Moving the leg further into its full range of motion (like ‘angel wings’ with the legs!), you can turn the head away from the leg as it moves down away from the head and towards the leg as it reaches out to the side.

Feel free to play with any other motion there that feels simply ‘right’ through your body and into any yawning and stretching pandiculations that it prompts.

After the second side, come back to the diaphragmatic breathing at the start to feel the effects of the movements in body, breath and mind there.

Discover Whole Health with Charlotte here, featuring access to yoga classes, meditations, natural health webinars, supplement discounts and more...